Fernande Decruck (1896-1954)
Sonate en ut dièse pour saxophone (ou alto) et orchestre (1943)
Poéme héroïque pour trompette solo en ut, cor solo en fa et orchestre (1946)
Concerto pour harpe et orchestre (1944)
Carrie Koffman (alto saxophone) Amy McCabe (trumpet) Leelanee Sterrett (horn), Chen-Yu Huang (harp)
Jackson Symphony Orchestra/Matthew Aubin
rec. 2022, Harold Sheffer Music Hall, George E. Potter Center, Jackson, USA
CLAVES 50-3046 
Fernande Decruck is hardly a household name, yet, in the world of classical saxophone at least, she has become one over the past couple of decades. Her Sonate en C# has cemented itself as a staple for the instrument. This release on Claves provides an opportunity not only to hear that work in its orchestral version but also two other fine concertante works.
Decruck was born Fernande Breilh in Gaillac in the south of France. She studied in the conservatories of Toulouse and Paris, majoring in organ and composition at the latter. She married Maurice Decruck, a clarinetist, saxophonist, and double bass player. Decruck played bass and saxophone with the New York Philharmonic. They had a family and started a publishing company, before eventually divorcing. Fernande taught harmony at the Toulouse Conservatoire for a while before eventually settling in Paris, where she died prematurely at the age of 57.
As you will see if you do your own research about her, the above biographical information is oft-repeated and is miserably scant. A release such as this one should have been an opportunity to not only bring quality performances of her wonderful music to the world (which, spoiler alert, it happily does) but also to enrich our knowledge of her life, career, and works. Sadly – and here I will get my only criticism of this CD out of the way – the booklet provides only a handful of brief paragraphs about her life which don’t offer much more than can be found elsewhere. A list of her major compositions would have been welcome. Did she write any other concertos? Did she write a symphony or other large-scale orchestral music? It is particularly disappointing considering the conductor, Matthew Aubin, is credited in his biographical note as being “...the foremost scholar on the French composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck.” I don’t wish to be too critical, but I do believe this to be something of an opportunity lost. However, this is made up for in part by a selection of wonderful photos of the composer included in the booklet and digipak.
The three concertante works on the disc are all world premiere recordings. The
Poéme héroïque is credited as “World premiere of a previously unperformed work”. The ‘Sonata in C#’ has been recorded several times in the version with piano (Claude Delangle on Bis, Asya Fateyeva on Genuin, Oskar Laznik on MDG, to name just a few). It has even been recorded in its version for viola and piano (Hillary Herndon on MSR Classics, for example). But this is the first recording with orchestra.
The saxophone repertory isn’t exactly over-brimming with notable sonatas, despite some prominent works by Albright, Creston, Denisov, Harbison, Heiden, Muczynski, Schulhoff and others, so the appearance of the Sonate en C# most definitely made a splash. It’s interesting, though, that the work isn’t even a sonata in the conventional sense. The version with piano is a reduction of the orchestral work premiered on this recording. It is in four movements, opening with an atmospheric Très modéré. There are snippets of languid melodies and trademark sextuplet flourishes. The second movement, Noël, is based on a French Christmas tune and possesses the same easy-going charm as can be heard in Debussy’s Petite Suite. A virtuosic Fileuse (spinning song) includes extended sextuplet passages. The Fileuse was recorded separately by Marcel Mule, the work’s dedicatee. The finale is in two parts, a Nocturne followed by a Rondel. The work as a whole is delicate, sensuous, and exquisitely impressionistic. It serves as a fine introduction to Decruck’s style and her quality as a distinctive and polished compositional voice.
The Poéme héroïque is for trumpet, horn, and orchestra and is in three movements: Moderato, Andante espressivo, and Final. It also begins in atmospheric fashion with a striking motif of wide intervals forming from the mists. The trumpet enters in declamatory voice and is soon joined by the horn. Their dialogue is underpinned by rhythmic figures and percussion flourishes. This movement brings to mind Ernst Bloch’s Proclamation for trumpet and orchestra. The second movement’s gentle espressivo has a nocturnal quality while the Final is pert and optimistic.
The Harp Concerto is in what is now apparent as Decruck’s distinctive style: languid charm, perky rhythmic figures, and an overall feeling of gentle impressionism and positive demeanor. The harp glissandi and tintinnabulations are accompanied by snatches of melody from solo violin, woodwinds, and brass. Like the ‘Sonata in C#’, the concerto is also in four movements. The Modéré, sans lenteur is followed by a lovely Andante that begins with the harp seul. The brief Très vif et léger third movement has a march-like character much of the time. Regarding the finale, the booklet states that in the published score Decruck wished that “...the original fourth movement, a fughetta, should be suppressed. The present recording respects her wishes.” Does this mean that there was an additional movement before the current finale, or that the fughetta was replaced? For me, this is the weaker work on the disc and it also betrays a few weaknesses from the orchestra, specifically intonation in a couple of places.
Finally, credit needs to be given to the soloists who acquit themselves ably, as well as to the Jackson Symphony (aside from the one blemish mentioned above), an orchestra with which I was previously unfamiliar. Matthew Aubin has done a fine job with this recording and it is obviously a labor of love. It is recorded vividly by Claves and I certainly hope that this proves to be the first of several recordings of Decruck’s music from this team. If not, it may at least mark the beginning of a much-anticipated revival of her music.
October 21, 2022